Iowa’s first in the nation status is in jeopardy. The results of the February 3 caucus are unclear. And even as the results are released and the media turns its attention to the primary process underway in other states, there are questions and concerns that need to be addressed with not only the 2020 caucuses, but the system as a whole.
It’s only an accident of recent history that Iowa became the first in the nation. Due to party convention rule changes in 1968, Iowa only became first because party chairs needed time to process the paperwork. It didn’t become a media circus until after 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the caucuses and went on to win the presidency.
Since their establishment, the caucuses have become an important economic driver for the state and an effective political tool of both parties. Both parties have a stake in getting this right. Candidates invest huge amounts of time and money into Iowa during the campaigns, expecting a return of momentum.
But the underlying issues of representation, inclusion and accessibility have yet to be meaningfully addressed. This year’s Democratic caucuses saw new rule changes that were meant to address those issues: satellite caucuses, a smartphone app, new rules on viability counts and the presidential preference cards. Some satellite caucuses saw encouraging turnout among minority populations, but in the end the caucus turnout was still less than 16 percent of registered voters. Turnout for Democrats was equal with 2016 and below 2008.
Despite the party’s efforts to train staff and volunteers, reports from several precincts show many caucus leaders were confused about the counting and realignment procedures. That drug out an already time consuming process, and some frustrated Iowans chose to leave without having their preferences counted.
Many of these problems are inherent in the caucus process, not the fault of the current Democratic Party leadership. In the previous two nominating cycles, Iowa parties have suffered similar challenges to the caucuses’ integrity.
In 2016, it was Democrats’ coin flip tiebreakers that frustrated caucusgoers in an extremely tight race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Republicans declared Mitt Romney the winner late on caucus night, only to backtrack two weeks later by announcing Rick Santorum had won the most votes.
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The Iowa Democratic Party promised three counts: one from the first alignment, one from the final alignment and the delegate count.
But these rules and changes only confounded the already exclusionary process, and significantly increased the points of failure in a complex process. And with a lack of transparency from the party, the evening became a statewide nightmare, with a growing chorus of voices calling for an end to the caucuses.
There were warnings for months that this year’s caucus would have trouble. Reporting from Iowa Public Radio raised concerns about the smartphone app used by precinct chairs for reporting results. Columnists at this paper and elsewhere raised concerns about the jumble of new rules and how the process would be communicated and how that would work.
This lack of transparency fed a media environment where conspiracy theories are rife and raised further questions about the process.
As reporting from February 3 comes out, highlighting the inconsistencies and unevenness to the process, the clearest picture that will form is that for all their benefits to the state: the Iowa caucuses are, at their core, unworkable.